He is tall and slender and today he wears a black suit jacket as he has worn every Wednesday before. The jacket is very slick and shiny so that he looks as if he might be a pimp or a gambler or a traveling salesman. He is a preacher. The jacket is poorly tailored. It is too broad at the shoulders and then it pulls too tight where it single-buttons at the stomach.
When I arrive he is arranging plastic chairs into tight rows in the small courtyard. The courtyard is an accidental open space that is behind the table tennis hall and in front of the boxing gym and beside the shanty houses. As he arranges the chairs, two women sort shelled nuts that they will sell on the sidewalk tomorrow and three small boys stand soapy and naked as they wash themselves in a large basin.
Inside the gym I change from my work clothes. I stow my backpack and my crash helmet under the bench and I wrap my hands in the thick cloth band that will protect my wrists and knuckles. As I wrap my hands, I watch the preacher through the window grating. He is young. Probably he has only recently finished his catechism or apprenticeship or however someone trains to be a preacher, I think. He starts the small generator that sits beside the wooden podium that is at the head of the plastic chairs. The generator powers the amplifier that, I think, he only needs because the generator that powers it is so loud.
With my hands now wrapped, I skip rope. I start lightly at first, holding my gut firm to exercise the muscles as my body goes up and down. As I warm up, I begin to skip faster. When I am warmer still, I cross my arms so that the rope crosses on the way down and then I uncross them on the way back up. This exercises the arms and the lungs and builds fighting rhythm. When others skip, they watch themselves in the full-length mirror but I watch what is happening in the ring.
The coach is in the ring. First he is jogging small laps between the ropes to warm himself up. Then he is working the mitts with the Lebanese who always arrives before me. He must work close by or else he leaves work early. He is older and heavier and slower than me. He places his phone on the table beside the ring timer. When the phone rings he stops to answer it. He never leaves it to be called back later and he is never too out of breath to answer it. The sound of his gloves against the coach’s mitts is dull, I think as I skip rope and watch them.
Outside I hear the preacher speaking in tongues.
‘In the name of Jesus! Bfunnununun ahdaddada jabala-labala-labala…your compassion… gogala gogala golgadala…for the love of the father….romaramanara ahdaddada…show us your mercy!’
There is no audience and his service has not yet begun. He too is warming up, I think.
After ten minutes I finish skipping rope. This has loosened me so that now I have to urinate. I go outside to the end of the courtyard where a hole has been made between two shanty houses. Afterwards, I watch the preacher as I stretch my muscles, preparing for the real work to begin. Now he has an audience. They are three boys and an old man and they nearly fill the first of the three rows of plastic chairs. The old man lives in one of the shanty houses behind the gym. He cleans up around the courtyard sometimes and he has attended the preacher’s services every Wednesday since they began some months ago. For a long time he has been the preacher’s whole audience. I imagined that this must have been discouraging. There were many weeks when I expected that the preacher would not return. Now there are three new boys. Now he has an audience, I think as I finish my stretches and tighten my hand wraps.
I am warm now. I feel light and loose and there is just a hint of that deep soreness. It tells me that yesterday’s early morning workout was a good one. I bend my neck side to side, which is what I do when I am finished warming up, and now I am ready to be serious. The end-of-round bell rings and the coach shouts from inside the ring.
I enter the ring to the sound of the preacher’s singing. It is distorted by so many other sounds: the pounding of gloved fists against the heavy bags, the creaking of the roof beams from the strain of the impacts, the traffic from the main street that is not far away, and, of course, the thundering of the small petrol generator. I, who have no appreciation for church singing, hear only a cacophony as I enter the ring and the start-of-round bell rings. I adjust my hands inside the 16-ounce gloves and then I pound them together as I advance to meet the coach at center ring.
‘Jab!’ he calls out.
I throw a left and the sound from his right mitt is full but does not resonate.
‘Jab!’ he calls again.
I throw another left and this time there is a sharp crack from the place where it connects harmoniously with the mitt.
‘Jab-jab!’ he shouts and my left extends rapidly twice.
‘One-two!’ the coach calls out and I release a left and then a right.
We move around the ring and as I get warmer he adds hooks and uppercuts and the combinations he calls become longer and more complex. Outside the preacher is singing louder but I do not hear him. My world extends only to what the coach calls out, the crack of the gloves against the mitts, the weaving of my head as I avoid the punches he returns, and the working of my lungs as I synchronize labored breathing with body movements. When the warning bell rings, I am as fast and as strong as I can be. I have worked out the stiffness but I am not yet fatigued. When the end-of-round bell rings I pace and do small jumps in my corner. I am on the balls of my feet and I work my arms like pistons, and I feel all the fibers begging to be turned loose again.
Right now there is nothing else that exists in the whole world, not even you, and I love it.
When the start-of-round bell rings I come charging in. The sound of the gloves against mitts is clear and sharp and captivates the gym as if right now it has conquered all other sounds.
Between the second and third rounds the gym is silent while everyone is resting. Outside, I hear the silence too. I glance out the window and I see that he is finished singing. His papers are in his hand and I hear him begin the sermonizing. He is getting serious now too, I think.
When the bell rings again I forget all this about the preacher and my world wonderfully narrows again so that there is no gym outside the ring, and no you, and no preacher in no courtyard outside that. For the third and fourth rounds I am very strong and I am very fast. The sound from the mitts is the only thing I or anyone else in the gym can hear. Between the rounds I notice that the preacher is strong too.
‘Remember his word and live by it,’ he shouts to his small audience. ‘There is only his word! Do you get me? Halleluiah!’
The bell rings and the fifth round begins. As I advance to meet the coach, I can feel that my arms and my legs are suddenly very heavy. In center ring, the coach raises his mitts and he calls for a combination. I swing my arms and I can feel that my strength has deserted me. It is as if the air has been stolen from my lungs and the blood from my fibers. Now I miss my combinations and I become frustrated. The coach sees my frustration and he is emboldened by it. He swings his mitted hands at me more fiercely between my combinations so that I get struck in the face or upside the head if I do not pay attention. When the warning bell sounds my chest is heaving and I am pleading with my sinews to hold together. At the end of the round, I drop my hands and I slink back to my corner.
‘One more,’ the coach says after me.
I am in my corner and I throw my arms over the ropes and let my body and my fists hang limp on either side. Outside I can hear that that the preacher too is struggling. There are more pauses between the things that he says and he repeats himself over and over as if he has only heart and will and he has lost his strength of vocabulary.
‘Do you get me?’ he shouts. ‘Praise Jesus!’
A few moments pass.
A few more moments pass and I unhook my arms from the ropes.
‘Praise him! Praise Jesus!’
My eyes widen and focus.
‘Do you get me? Praise his name!’
I swing my arms once to loosen the rotation of my shoulders.
‘Praise him! Halleluiah! Do you get me?’
My breathing begins to normalize.
‘Halleluiah! In the name of Jesus!’
I rise to the balls of my feet and I bounce.
‘Do you get me?’
I bounce again.
Do you get me?’
The bounces are heavy but now I am on my toes and I am bouncing over and over again, and throwing my arms out to circulate the blood.
‘Praise Jesus! In the name of Jesus! Halleluiah!’
I bend my neck side to side and I pound my gloves together.
‘I say praise him! Do you get me? Praise him! Praise his name!’
The bell rings and the sixth round starts and I am leaning forward as I advance to the center of the ring. Much has been taken and I am lesser now. I am not that speed and strength that I was in earlier rounds, but the will behind it remains. I am on the balls of my feet and I am bouncing and my hands are up and my head is weaving to avoid anything that is thrown.
‘Jab!’ the coach calls out.
I throw a left and the sound is full but does not resonate.
‘Jab!’ he calls again.
I throw another left.
It is not the gym-conqueror that was before but it is a true sound.
‘Double jab!’ the coach shouts.
‘In his name!’
Crack crack-crack crack
‘Do you get me?’
Crack-crack crack crack
Do you get me?
Note: During the couple weeks between when I wrote and posted this, the preacher is now using an Acer netbook rather than written pages for his prayers and sermons. It’s a wonderful, modern world we live in!